Fear is understandable in children, but as adults, it's important that we flee from fears. If the Apostle Paul is right about fear, then fear is much more than a passive emotion with which we should empathize. It's a terrible force we must drive away, for fear has the potential to be one of love's antitheses. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 13 that "perfect love casts out fear." If you flip this around a bit, you would see that if fear is present, love (or at least perfect love) is not. Since love is the crux of the Christian religion (love God and love others) and the wellspring from which our actions flow, it's pretty important that we don't sabotage our ability to love by our choosing to fostering fear.
Paul's statement about love and fear may seem a bit odd at first, but I think it makes sense when you begin to consider certain expressions of fear. For example, racism and bigotry tend to be expressions born out of fear. People often think poorly of or act cruelly towards those in different groups as a form of preemptive self-defense. Their fear of the unknown drives them to distancing others from themselves rather than building community. While fear can cause us to be actively cruel towards others, fear can also work in the opposite manner and cause us to be passively cruel. Perhaps one changes the channel when they see an ad for donating to starving children because they're scared of their own mortality, facing their own greed, or understanding implications that there are needy in the world going unhelped. Ignorance is unimposing. It is better that one be left in their blissful ignorance and leave the needy to suffer than that one becomes educated and face inner turmoil. In another scenario, maybe one's fear of confrontation prevents them from telling a friend or family member that their behavior or lifestyle is leading them to destruction. Or perhaps like many citizens in former Nazi occupied territory, we remain silent and do nothing when our neighbors are in great need or peril, all for the sake of maintaining our own comfort or existence. While we may not be Nazis today, if we take Jesus's definition of neighbor which would certainly include the foreigner, we still have a lot of work to do in order to fight hatred and injustice. Fear often drives our actions, and as Paul implied, it drives our actions towards the opposite of love - the separation of community which leads to hatred or indifference.
One of the greatest tragedies, and perhaps the root of all evil produced by fear, is fear's blinding power that masks God's presence. The rich young ruler was so fearful of losing his wealth that he was blinded to God's presence and offer of salvation. The disciples saw Jesus heal people and forgive sins (something only God could do), yet when they faced a storm on the sea, for awhile they forgot that God was on the boat with them. Peter, after having faith to walk on water, succumbed to his fears and forgot that God was standing right there in front of him. Most of the disciples, after recognizing that Jesus was the Son of God, fled in fear at the hour of Christ's greatest need. The Pharisees were so fearful of losing their power and status, they ended up crucifying God himself. More than anything else, fear destroys our ability to acknowledge God's presence.
I'm convinced that it's this aspect of fear - the aspect which causes us not to see God in our midst - that is at the root of the problems exhibited due to fear. How could one show favoritism or hatred towards another human being made in the image of God - or how could one human allow another human to be used as property or to be disposed of without intervening in protest or insubordination? In a world where God is king and where his image is present everywhere we look, how could we continue in our evil? We often continue in our evil because fear blinds us to God. Whether we fear the sacrifice of wealth, time, relationships, or any other form of control, our fear drives us to dismiss God and do evil.
I am certainly not without fears. In fact, I likely have a common fear with many of those who read these words. My community raised me to fear liberals and progressives. In fact, they're still trying to whisper in my ear about this. Actually, they're usually more the yelling type. They're yelling at me to fear the other. The rhetoric I've heard and used in my conservative community is one which I'm not proud of. But you have to understand that we conservatives take God very seriously. We have his very Word in our midst. To have a group of people, like progressives, subvert the Word of God with their false beliefs, or pervert his image through their immoral lifestyle of promiscuity and debauchery, is unfathomable. Many progressives go so far as to even diminish Jesus to merely a good teacher, taking the miraculous and supernatural out of the Bible. We conservatives cannot let such blasphemy go.
I've come to realize, however, that we conservatives diminish God as well. We subvert the Word and image of God. Like the progressives, we take the miraculous out of the Bible. When James tells us that true religion is to do good to the widow and orphan, and Jesus tells us that when we help the least we are serving him, we so often fail to see God in our midst. In our minds, serving the needy isn't called "serving God," it's called "enabling." We so often find excuses to avoid helping others, excuses which place all the blame on the other and takes the imperative off us. We moralize our decisions by claiming we're doing God's work of upholding morality when we're really refusing to engage with the types of people Christ engaged and refusing to perform the types of actions Christ commanded we engage in. How could God possibly do anything in the hearts of the generationally poor through something like gracious generosity? That would have to be a miracle for God to use something as hopeless as the means of generosity and grace. Likewise, when Jesus tells us to love our enemies and tells us that our persecution for obeying him is an indication of our Kingdom rebirth, we usually don't believe him. We fear loving our enemies because we fear justice not being accomplished on our timeline. If we forgive and don't seek justice, how will we ever be vindicated and how will the unjust ever suffer? Or worse, we are like Jonah - we are men and women who know the transformative power of God and fear that should we see God in our midst and love our enemies, then our enemies may repent and receive mercy. We conservatives aren't any better than the progressives. While progressives may frequently remove God's miraculous intervention in nature, we often remove God's miraculous intervention in the human heart, reducing people to objects and statistics who we deem worthy or unworthy of our resources based on our own standards.
Fear saps Christianity of life because it saps Christians of love. Since love is the greatest evidence Jesus said we'd have to show the world the truth of the gospel, fear is also deteriorating our witness. In that sense, FDR is right from a Christian perspective. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." For without fear, our eyes may be open to the presence of God, and that vision of God before us will cause us to love. It won't just cause us to love in a vacuous, sentimental way. It will cause us to love boldly and self-sacrificially, knowing that the power in love is our God who is love. For if God is before us and if God is with us, then I don't need to worry about control or about losing anything. If my enemy is in the image of God and if God is in me and with me, then I can love my enemy with a wild love. Without fear, I can take Christ's words in Matthew 5-7 seriously and turn my cheek or bear my enemy's load. If those who are impoverished are made in the image of God and if God is in me and with me, then I can give with little thought, knowing that God's depiction of grace and mercy are more empowered means than my use of self-centered hoarding which my deceitful heart often masks as stewardship and wisdom. Without fear, I can take Christ's words in Matthew 5-7 seriously and give without letting one hand know what the other is doing.
When we allow fear to infest our lives, it leads us to the irrational. Our fears are often no less irrational and silly than a child's fears. I'm reminded of a time when Elin was two and she was scared to go to bed because she thought a horde of frogs were going to invade her room. Somehow all these frogs would instantaneously spawn, jump up to the second story window, get through the closed and locked window, enter her room, and for some reason take interest in attacking her. It was absolutely irrational, and now that we're beyond that situation, laughable. But fear has us doing the same type of thing with God. Our creator and the lover of our souls sent his only son to suffer for us and live as an example for us to follow. He has our best interest in mind. There is absolutely no way that evil will prevail and that God will let us out of his grasp. Yet when he reminds us of these things - when he asks us to relinquish money, to relinquish judgment, to relinquish justice, to relinquish pride, and to relinquish our control over things - we irrationally believe that we can better know and shape the outcomes. Like Adam and Eve, we define both the means and the ends for ourselves.
I want to challenge you to go and read through Matthew 5-7, but only after you check your fears at the door. What does Jesus say his Kingdom looks like? What aspects of control is he asking us to lay at God's feet? Does God call us to do things like be generous or to love enemies as a prescription for fixing them, or as a prescription for working on our own selfish and controlling hearts as we learn to trust God? Does God say that we're on our own or is he with us? What does God say is the goal of all this - our comfort or the Kingdom? I'm embarrassed to admit that for almost my whole life I read Matthew 5-7 as a prescription to fix others, and as practices which were largely metaphoric. But today I realize I only read them that way because if I read them as Jesus intended, the implications on my life would be enormous. Fear caused me to hate my enemy and treat them poorly (usually progressives, or Arminians if there weren't any progressives around). Fear caused me to horde my money and "steward" it in ways which meant that I really didn't give to those who needed it, and if I did give, I did so based on one's merit and without grace. If I gave, I gave only to pragmatically fix people I objectified as a goal to accomplish, not because God called me to trust him with my finances and give generously and joyfully to those who bore his image. Fear caused me to claim that I was in God's presence when he was not very much in mine. And the world could smell that fear because they could taste the bitterness of love's absence.
I'd love to say I'm fearless now. I'd love to say I now read Matthew 5-7 as Jesus intends. I'd love to say I haven't taken the miraculous out of the Bible, but most days I do. However, on the days God empowers me to see his presence, I am able to see the world differently. I'm able to love my family, love my community, and love those in need well. Those days I glimpse God before me, in my child or in the beggar, I have hope. It's not just a hope which sees God's ability to do the miraculous in their hearts, but a hope that he might just be able to do the same in mine. What a comfort that is to me, and how greatly it allays my fears. To know that God will not leave me to my own devices, that the outcome is up to him and not me, and that God is faithful to complete his work - that is peace. And when we are at peace, having fear cast out, we are on the road to perfect love.